Aaron Bady on MOOCs

So, since starting the Ronin Institute, I’ve been giving some thought to how one, as an independent scholar, can participate in teaching. After all, while some independent scholars are happy to be relieved of onerous teaching duties that keep them from their research, most actually like students, and would prefer to be involved in teaching to some extent.

One way to do this is through adjunct teaching at a local college or university. This is not necessarily appealing, though, since it typically pays terribly (for the number of hours you have to put in to do a good job), and it requires you to participate, at least passively, in undermining the traditional employment structure of the university. That is, as an adjunct, you’re basically a scab. (This may or may not be a negative, depending on your position on various things, but it’s not something that really appeals to me personally.)

The other way is through online courses. These are appealing to me in some ways. They are potentially more open, accessible, and democratic. They also feel as if they are more in keeping with the underlying mission of the Ronin Institute. After all, a part of the mission is to build a model of scholarship that is consistent with, well, life. We believe that it should be possible to function as a scholar while at the same time having family or other priorities that control where you live and when you work. Doesn’t that mean that we should be working to extend education to people for whom the constraints of the traditional college system does not work? At least part of me feels like maybe it does.

That leads us to the Next Big Thing™: the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). This seems like an obvious path for the independent scholar. However, I’ve been hesitant about that path because I’m not yet convinced that anyone has yet figured out how to really make this work. I mean sure, you can record lectures, and you can assign problem sets, and you can even organize online video-chat discussions. But based on my personal experiences with online communications of various sorts, I have this suspicion that these courses, as they currently exist, are missing some critical element. Something that is hard to articulate, but is actually central to a genuine educational experience.

Anyway, that’s the context in which I read Aaron Bady’s new piece in The New Inquiry, where he articulates a number of things that I think are absolutely true, but which had previously existed in my own consciousness in a nebulous, impressionistic form. Go read the whole piece, but among the points he argues are:

  1. MOOCs are being offered as a solution to high student-teacher ratios. This is ironic, since they lead to massive increases in the student-teacher ratio (and a decrease in teacher accessibility).
  2. In California, at least, MOOCs are being used to privatize education, under the veneer of making education “more accessible.” He points out that for-pay MOOCs are not really “Open” in the way that implied by the appropriation of the term.
  3. Good teaching involves attention and response to various paralinguistic cues from the students. It is not inconceivable that there could be online tools to facilitate this, but they certainly do not exist today. And certainly not when the primary product is a pre-recorded lecture.
  4. MOOCs will work best (perhaps only) for self-directed learners, who do not require the pressure and feedback provided by the in-person classroom setting. However, for those people, it is not clear that your typical MOOC provides added value over, say, access to Wikipedia.
  5. Even for the self-directed, a part of the college experience is learning how to interact and exchange ideas with others — debating and disagreeing in a respectful way: “If we take a process of socialization and make it a process of anti-socialization—if to be “at” college, you must be alone in front of a computer—we take the dynamic that creates the legendary poisonous atmosphere of “the comment thread” and use it to create adults.”
Anyway, I’d love to know what others think, especially if you’ve ever taught online classes.

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